Fates Worse Than Death: Drums of Fu Manchu

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A man steps into a taxi; at every step of his journey, he is being followed as he makes his way to his destination. Just as the traveler reaches safety, one of the lurking pursuers attacks, throwing a knife that the would-be victim only barely dodges! The man? Sir Denis Nayland Smith of the British Foreign Office. His attacker? A Dacoit in the service of Smith’s deadly archenemy, Dr. Fu Manchu!

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Just as the first of the popular series of novels by Sax Rohmer (real name: Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward) begins, so begins Drums of Fu Manchu, the 1940 Republic serial loosely adapted from them. As in Rohmer’s books, the only thing standing between the fiendishly brilliant “devil doctor” and “nothing less than the conquest of Asia” is Smith (played by William Royle), a hero who stands midway between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (temporally as well as in style); and his assistant, Dr. Petrie (it was Dr. Petrie’s doorstep on which Smith was attacked in the first scene). There is usually also a younger man of action who encounters the diabolical conspiracies surrounding Fu Manchu and his secret organization, the Si Fan, as a newcomer, drawn in by some personal connection and allying himself with Smith and Petrie once the stakes are clear to him. In Drums, that young man is Allan Parker (Robert Kellard), son of James Parker, an explorer in possession of knowledge desired by Fu Manchu.

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Fu Manchu’s goal is to recover the sacred scepter of Genghis Khan, an artifact which will allow him to unite all of the peoples of Asia in rebellion against the white occupiers. According to prophecy, a leader will arise to take up the scepter during the “Holy Year”–Sir Nayland has spent months undercover in Burma observing Fu Manchu’s surrogates riling up the local tribes “from the Nihali Mountains through Branapuhr,” in expectation of the leader’s–Fu Manchu’s–arrival. From the point of view of the British authorities, the High Lama is a much better candidate to receive the scepter, as he promises peace (and continuing cooperation with the British, naturally). Both Fu Manchu and Sir Nayland Smith must work through the various clues left behind–scrolls, a plaque, a stone from an altar, and so on–to locate the missing tomb of Genghis Khan, each trying to recover the scepter first. Even once the action moves back to Asia and the scepter is found, the serial isn’t over.

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In order to accomplish his goals, Fu Manchu has (and will again) resorted to murder: the explorer Lionel Barton, whose transcriptions of certain scrolls revealed the existence of the scepter, is already out of the way. Dr. Parker will be next, and things aren’t looking too good for Professor Randolph, an expert on Mongolian languages who accompanied Barton on his expedition. Another victim is Wally Winchester, the radio columnist who is felled by a “gelatinous dart” hidden in his microphone, right before he attempts to reveal on-air the hideout in which Fu Manchu has Parker held captive! Elaborate murders, death-traps, and methods of torture are Fu Manchu’s stock in trade, and they complement the Republic serial style quite smoothly: many of the serial’s cliffhangers consist of traps or torture devices, the question of the hero’s survival left for the following week, and in other cases they are incidents along the way or the basis for action set pieces.

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Most of these killings are accompanied by the drums of the title: a sinister drumbeat that builds ominously, indicating the presence of the villain. It’s not always clear what or where the drums are: sometimes they are part of the diegetic sound of the film, and the characters call attention to them, knowing that they are threatened. At other times they are a spooky, atmospheric effect, ladled onto the soundtrack like gravy. In any case, they are never directly explained, but they are an effective dramatic device, and a symbol of the atmosphere of dread that hangs over the whole serial like opium smoke.

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At the center of this malign web is Fu Manchu himself, played by Henry Brandon. Fu Manchu is one of the great pop culture villains, perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind, and has been portrayed on screen by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, among others (even Warner Oland, who would later give the best-known portrayal of Charlie Chan, took a turn as the devil doctor early in his career). Here’s what Sir Nayland has to say to Dr. Petrie in their first adventure together:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.

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The unironic use of the phrase “yellow peril” suggests, of course, that the character has little to do with the actual culture or politics of Asia and everything to do with the West’s anxieties and fears of same. (It should also be clear that, in addition to his vicious, criminal acts, Fu Manchu’s dream of throwing off British imperialism is enough by itself to make him villainous in Sir Nayland Smith’s eyes.) Fu Manchu embodies a host of troublesome, contradictory stereotypes: he is bound by a strong sense of honor, yet is underhanded, secretive, and treacherous; he is described in terms that seem physically inhuman and is completely exotic in his costume, yet his knowledge of white ways and mastery of disguise allow him to blend in undetected in Europe or America; he is coded as effete, even effeminate, but represents a sexual danger to white women (this doesn’t come through as strongly in the Hays Code-approved serial, but it often does in other representations of the character); in short, he can be anywhere and can be anything that inspires fear or disgust in his (presumably white) audience. (His command of all Asians also has the unpleasant side effect of making non-white characters appear suspicious, beyond even their usual portrayal as others: in this serial, just about anybody in a turban or robe could be a member of the Si Fan.)

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This is, of course, why none of the actors famous for playing the character were themselves of Asian descent, and a big reason why the character has made few official appearances in recent decades, even as he remains recognizable as an icon. Fu Manchu is now more likely to be spoofed (his last official appearance was in 1980, played by Peter Sellers) or subverted (consider the twist in Iron Man 3) than taken seriously: even among those who still traffic in “yellow peril” anxiety, the Asian villains have been updated to take advantage of current political and economic tensions. (But who knows? Even as I write this a trade war with China is in the offing, and the white nationalism currently embroiling the country has much in common with the panic over immigration that made Fu Manchu and other yellow peril characters so popular a hundred years ago; as much as I would like to consider these stereotypes as a purely academic matter, they are still very much with us.)

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Brandon’s portrayal hits these notes often and hard: he speaks in a high, querulous voice, drawing out words with exacting precision, and delivers his lines with haughty condescension. He is a “villain you love to hate.” (Although Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies is largely a riff on James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, there’s more than a little of Fu Manchu in him as well, particularly the scenes of gathering his varied henchmen around a conference table, so like the Si Fan council meetings.*) Unlike many other serials, Drums of Fu Manchu keeps its villain front and center, confronting the heroes face to face often rather than keeping distance between them. And why not? Fu Manchu is the star, not Sir Nayland Smith (a point made brilliantly in Gahan Wilson’s short story “The Power of the Mandarin,” which I recommend but won’t spoil).

*On the other hand, Dr. Evil is also said to be modeled on Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, and I’ve never seen Michaels and Fu Manchu in the same room together, have you?

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In Fu Manchu’s service are his Dacoits, mostly interchangeable goons sent on missions of burglary, kidnapping, and assassination, sometimes under the direct leadership of Fu Manchu’s daughter, Fah Lo Suee (Gloria Franklin). The Dacoits’ primary weapon is the throwing knife, but strangling nooses and blowguns–both “exotic weapons”–come into play as well. The word dacoit refers to a Burmese bandit or robber, but in Sax Rohmer’s books they are one of several cult-like organizations, along with the Thuggee, who serve Fu Manchu with undying loyalty. In the serial, the Dacoits have had their brains operated on to make them loyal, and they are recognizable by the grotesque scars left by the surgery. Only a few have names (chief among them Loki, Fu Manchu’s muscle and leader of the other Dacoits), and they are narratively equivalent to the zombies of Haitian voodoo (in fact, in one chapter Nayland Smith is himself threatened with being turned into a Dacoit, a true fate worse than death!).

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It should be evident from this partial description that there are quite a few characters in Drums of Fu Manchu, and that’s not even getting into the one-chapter characters like Ezra Howard, the eccentric collector from whom one of the clues must be finessed. I also haven’t mentioned Mary Randolph (Luana Walters), Professor Randolph’s daughter, first seen bringing the “Dalai Plaque” by train and joining the heroes’ forces after an attempted theft and the sabotage of the train. Mary is naturally paired up with Allan Parker as a romantic lead, and she also counters Fah Lo Suee, the other important female character. Allan Parker and Sir Nayland Smith essentially take turns as leads, one frequently falling into peril (when it isn’t Mary in distress) and the other arriving to save the day. Interestingly, Dr. Petrie (Olaf Hytten), Smith’s nominal sidekick, frequently fades into the background in the serial while other characters take more active roles.

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Drums of Fu Manchu is ultimately more like the popular image of serials than many of the serials I’ve seen: because Fu Manchu makes a personal appearance in every chapter, we are treated to many scenes of him delivering deliciously arch monologues to his intended victims, bound and awaiting death by some slow, gruesome mechanism: “I have a number of Oriental devices for extracting information from stubborn witnesses, but I’m honoring you by the use of an arrangement invented by one of your own countrymen,” he tells Allan Parker in a typical example. “You’re undoubtedly familiar with the admirable writings of Edgar Allan Poe? So you will have no difficulty in recognizing this device, described in his short story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.'” The rest of the scene, as they say, writes itself.

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Furthermore, whereas even many serials based on series characters are self-contained, Drums of Fu Manchu never lets us forget that it is but one episode in a never-ending struggle. “From the pages of fiction steps the most sinister figure of all time–FU MANCHU!” reads the opening crawl. “Schooled in the ancient mysteries of the Orient he is as modern as Tomorrow!” Even though this is Republic’s only Fu Manchu serial (a sequel was proposed, but was dropped because of the wartime alliance with China), his familiarity to audiences (in addition to the novels, Fu Manchu was a multimedia sensation, with previous film appearances, radio programs, and comics) provided a sense of continuity. The introduction of the characters in the first chapter implies earlier adventures, and–very unusually–the serial ends with a single scene of Fu Manchu, alone, still alive, and vowing to continue his war upon the West: “But there will dawn another day, a day of reckoning, when the forces of Fu Manchu will sweep on to victory! This I pledge.” To the end, he is far too dignified to shake his fist and cry, “I’ll get you next time, Nayland Smith!”, but the meaning is the same.

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What I Watched: Drums of Fu Manchu (Republic, 1940)

Where I Watched It: a 2-disc DVD set from VCI Entertainment

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No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Dials a Number” (Chapter Six) In this chapter, Allan Parker is left tied up next to a telephone whose ringer has been attached to the fuse of an explosive; as soon as either Fu Manchu or Sir Nayland Smith attempt to call, it’s curtains for Allan!

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Best Cliffhanger: As often happens, the title of Chapter Nine, “The Crystal of Death,” foreshadows the cliffhanging peril that will end the chapter. In this chapter, Fu Manchu, having abducted Mary, brings her to the temple of the sun goddess Kardac. Sir Nayland Smith is already there, trying to gain the information from the temple priest that both he and Fu Manchu are seeking (both are in possession of a fragment of the temple’s altar, one the original and the other a replica). Fu Manchu reminds the priest that prophecy says the goddess will speak when the true fragment of the altar is replaced, and speak she does, demanding a sacrifice to atone for the desecration of the temple by outsiders (strange, though, that the goddess’s voice sounds so much like Fah Lo Suee’s!). Mary, placed in a trance by the “incense of obedience,” is laid out on the altar, and sunlight from outside is projected (via a series of mirrors) through the temple’s sacred crystal, which focuses it into a powerfully destructive ray. As the ray moves slowly toward Mary, the small idols on the altar burst into flame, showing just how intensely hot it is. Somewhere, the drums of Fu Manchu begin their relentless tattoo, the pulsing drumbeat that spells doom. . . .

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Sample Dialogue: “May I remind you that among my people, honor is a sacred thing, and those who defile it can expect no mercy!” –Fu Manchu to Mary Randolph, Chapter Three (“Ransom in the Sky”)

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Bonus Sample Dialogue: “Illustrious father, the switch is open; both trains are on the same track; and when they meet, the Sunrise Limited will be but a thing of twisted metal.” –Fah Lo Suee to Fu Manchu on the telephone, Chapter One (“Fu Manchu Strikes”)

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Death by Octopus? Of course.

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Death by Cave-In? You know it.

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Villain Disguises Himself as Hero? Without a doubt.

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Where in the World is Fu Manchu? Note the address on the packing crate: this must be on the same map as Gotham City and Yoknapatawpha County.

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What Others Have Said: “William Witney and John English, mentioned throughout this book as the most professional directors of movie serials, directed Drums of Fu Manchu. Working with photographer William Nobels, the directing team stressed the mystery elements inherent in the Fu Manchu novels, unlike most of their action-oriented photoplays. [There is still quite a bit of action, however. –GV] Most of their serial was photographed in shadows with the eeriest lighting possible falling upon Fu. Before he made his appearance the almost supernatural drums of Fu Manchu began to sound from nowhere. There was no denying the fact that the Witney-English Fu Manchu was more than human and possessed weird powers not even hinted at in the novels.” Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s Next: I’ll be back in two weeks with a look at Adventures of Captain Africa, the sequel/rehash of The Phantom. I hope you’ll join me.

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Fates Worse Than Death: Red Barry

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China is at war! In the headquarters of General Fang, the elderly Wing Fu, known in the United States as a humble importer of Chinese goods, prepares to undertake a covert mission: he carries with him two million dollars in bonds, with which he is to secretly buy airplanes for the Chinese war effort (illegal under American neutrality laws). He takes with him the dedicated young Captain Moy, but it is clear that the mission will be dangerous: the Chinatown crimelord Quong Lee has already murdered three of Wing Fu’s associates, and all that stands between Quong Lee’s gang and the bonds is police detective Red Barry, “possibly the cleverest detective on the force,” already on the case of the Pell Street murders.

Meanwhile, Detective Barry has his own problems: although his immediate superior, Inspector Scott, considers Barry a great detective, the covert nature of many of his assignments make others suspicious: the police commissioner wants to take Barry off the Chinatown case and replace him with Valentine Vane, a foppish, glory-hungry “scientific detective” on loan from Scotland Yard. Barry tries to follow orders and stay away, but he keeps getting pulled back into the action, which first takes him to a theater in which a Chinese secret service man (disguised as an acrobat) is murdered, leading Barry to the ship on which Wing Fu and his bonds are to arrive in America. Also at the theater is someone else after the bonds: Natacha, a Russian dancer, swears that the bonds once belonged to her father and were stolen from him. She and her Russian cohort are determined to get back what is rightfully hers. Before the ship even pulls into port, the bonds are stolen from Wing Fu, leading to a fight on the docks with Quong Lee’s henchmen! That’s a lot of set-up, but it’s an indicator of just how much plot is stuffed into the thirteen chapters of Universal’s 1938 serial Red Barry!

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I’ll confess I wasn’t familiar with Red Barry before I started watching and researching this serial: like many of the serials, it was first a comic strip, which were a frequent source of film adaptations, just as comic books have proven to be in the last few decades. The comic strip Red Barry first appeared in March 1934, the first of many imitators to follow the success of Dick Tracy. (The artist/writer Will Gould is no relation to Tracy‘s creator Chester Gould. He is also not William Gould, who plays the Commissioner in this serial. While we’re at it, Western actor Don “Red” Barry has nothing to do with the comic strip or serial: he took his nickname through association with popular character Red Ryder, whom he had played on screen.)

The comic strip was popular enough to receive the Big Little Book treatment in addition to a serial adaptation; had it not ended in 1939 after only five years, it is likely it would be better remembered. Apparently, it wasn’t a decline in popularity or the strip’s high level of violence that led to its end: disputes with the syndicate and the heavy workload caused Gould to leave cartooning and begin a new–and easier–career in Hollywood. For many years it was considered a difficult strip to collect (the aforementioned violence meant it didn’t run in some newspapers), but a recent edition from IDW has reproduced the complete run in two volumes, and it is that which I have consulted.

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Like Dick Tracy, Red Barry was a gritty police procedural that didn’t shy away from the rougher aspects of law enforcement; Barry faces off against criminals with his fists and his gun, frequently outmaneuvering them through a combination of quick thinking and dumb luck. During the Depression, when lawlessness seemed to be everywhere, this new mode of “hard-boiled” crime fiction was very popular in both the comics and the pulps. The twist was that Barry was an “undercover man,” infiltrating criminal gangs and bringing them down from the inside, with only Inspector Scott knowing his real loyalty. Gould leavened the frequent fisticuffs and bloodshed with wry humor and colorful characters (as well as some unfortunate ethnic caricatures) drawn from his extensive experience as a newspaperman.

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Modern viewers of the serial will instantly recognize the formula that has been used in so many police stories: Barry is hounded by a clueless Commissioner and defended by his boss (Wade Boteler) because “he gets results;” Barry maintains contacts in the underworld and throughout the city, including would-be Chinatown detective “Hong Kong Cholly” (Philip Ahn, brother of Buck Rogers‘s Philson Ahn, and who is the only major player of Asian descent in this serial).

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His other source of support is Mississippi (Frances Robinson), the Southern-accented girl reporter for the Daily Press, who spends so much time in the offices of the police station (and even behind the wheel of a police car!) that she might as well be an honorary deputy. Although the serial doesn’t have Barry (played by serial icon Buster Crabbe, who had already played Tarzan and Flash Gordon, and would go on to play Buck Rogers) going undercover, it’s still reasonably faithful to the setup of the strip. Many of the supporting characters–Scott, Mississippi, Cholly, and Vane–are drawn from the comics.

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Mostly set in and around Chinatown, it would be easy for Red Barry to fall prey to the clichés of exoticism and Chinoiserie I discussed in the context of Shadow of Chinatown. Indeed, Asian actors and settings are used as a colorful backdrop for much of the story, but there is very little of the “Yellow Peril” in it. With its theme of Chinese self-defense opposed to official American neutrality, Red Barry is also more explicitly political than most serials (this has limits, however; presumably the war referred to is the struggle between Chinese Nationalists and Communists, but it is primarily a spark to get the story in America going). It is still a work of its time, however: Wing Fu and Quong Lee, the major Chinese characters, are played by white men, Syril Delevanti and Frank Lackteen respectively (see the Spoilers for more on this, however).

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As Hong Kong Cholly, Ahn plays the most stereotyped role, thickly-accented and obsequious to Red Barry (this is true to the original comics). As soon as the white people are gone, however, it is revealed that “Cholly” speaks perfect English: he is, in fact, Wing Fu’s son! (The shift in his dialogue may represent that the two are speaking Chinese in private, but it’s not entirely clear: either way, the clownish simpleton he appears to be around Red Barry is revealed to be an act.) As such, like Wing Fu he plays a dangerous game, respecting and relying on Red Barry and even helping him when it is in his own interest, but knowing that the mission to buy airplanes breaks American law.

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Natacha (Edna Sedgwick) is a similarly nuanced character, taking the initiative to correct the injustice done to her family. While she practically lives at the theater where she performs her act (a ballet number set to Tchaikovsky, of course), she maintains connections with some Russian toughs who hang out at Mama Sonia’s, a Russian restaurant. The lead Russian is Petrov, played by intense character actor Stanley Price, and he and the other Russians play the typical henchman roles, tailing people, breaking into their offices, and threatening them in their search for the missing bonds.

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Quong Lee also has his headquarters, behind the “Eurasian Café” in Chinatown, and his own gang of thugs, headed up by serial stalwart Wheeler Oakman as Weaver. In typical serial fashion, all three of the people trying to get the bonds delegate to people working for them or helping them, partly to keep the mystery drawn out–we can’t have Red Barry copping to the truth too quickly–and to keep the danger at arm’s length until the last few chapters, when they all have to get their hands dirty.

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The Chinatown and theater settings provide colorful backdrops for action and intrigue; many of the locations are returned to again and again, and almost all are riddled with secret entrances and exits, allowing Barry’s quarry to stay one step ahead and leading to some surprise confrontations. The fights, traps, and cliffhangers are generally well-executed and the pacing keeps things exciting and varied.

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The real strong point of this serial, however, is in the characterization: the antagonists have clear, contrasting motives that drive the plot forward and allow the characters to bounce off one another in various combinations. The mystery, while not deep, is tangled enough to justify the length it takes Barry to unravel it, and there are some twists (discussed below) that take the plot in new directions just when it seems that things may resolve according to formula. My one complaint is the sameness of the henchmen that I have in the past referred to as the “white guys in fedoras” problem: without context, it is not always clear whether the Russians or Quong Lee’s men are on screen, and when more than two sides of the conflict collide, the result is often as confusing for the audience as for the men involved. (At least Wing Fu’s men are Chinese, but even this is not always clear in wide shots.) This is not a huge problem, however, as dialogue usually clarifies the situation sooner or later, and when they get the spotlight it is always a pleasure to watch Stanley Price and Wheeler Oakman in action.

Finally, there is Red Barry himself. Once again, Buster Crabbe (here billed as “Larry,” as he often was in his earlier roles) proves why he was so effective anchoring the serials, whether fantastic or more down-to-earth. Crabbe’s Barry is not as rough-edged as the character in the comics, but he is cool-headed, competent, and diplomatic, even when assailed by doubts or in over his head. Putting him at the center makes it easy to see why his friends are so loyal to him. Red Barry is recommended viewing.

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Spoilers: As mentioned, Wing Fu and Quong Lee are both played by white men; in the case of Quong Lee, however, it turns out that he isn’t really Chinese within the story either! In Chapter Eight (“The Devil’s Disguise”), the audience learns that the Chinatown crimelord “Quong Lee” and Mannix, the mild-mannered theater manager, are one in the same! His real identity is Frederick Lee, a renegade white man run out of China. He is a master of disguise, using his theatrical skills to lead a double life and occasionally slip under the police’s noses when things get too hot. It turns out Red Barry isn’t the only “undercover man!” (William Ruhl plays the undisguised Mannix; it wasn’t that unusual for two different actors to play the same character in disguise in serials, either to throw the audience off or to make the “disguise” conceit more convincing.)

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In fact, there is another character who isn’t what he seems: in the Red Barry strip, Valentine Vane was a self-taught amateur detective who attempted to upstage the professionals, spoofing popular series character Philo Vance. In the serial, Vane (played by Hugh Huntley) is an annoying but apparently legitimate source of competition, a Scotland Yard detective brought in by the Commissioner because he lacks faith in Red Barry. In addition to his “scientific” airs, Vane is wealthy, and his mansion, complete with butler, archery range, and collection of automobiles, is a scene to which we return several times. At one point, when Red Barry, in possession of the bonds, is knocked unconscious, Vane takes them, supposedly so he can take credit for their recovery. This makes him underhanded, but not criminal. However, in Chapter Twelve (“The Enemy Within”), Vane makes his move, knocking Natacha unconscious and pulling a gun on the seemingly triumphant Mannix, demanding to split the proceeds from the bonds. “Valentine Vane” has been playing a long con all along, and beneath his “jolly good” cover he is actually an American grifter named Harry Dicer. He’s strung the Commissioner along until he was in a position to make a big score, and now he has his opportunity! Mannix and Vane team up for a while, at least until they inevitably betray each other and receive the punishment that is the just reward for all serial villains.

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Finally, while Wing Fu’s covert mission to buy airplanes for China runs afoul of American laws, changing circumstances mean that the bonds will be directed towards food and medicine for refugees. This humanitarian purpose is not against American law, and so Wing Fu and Red Barry are able to work together from Chapter Ten on. Ultimately, Natacha relinquishes her claim to the bonds when she learns they will be used for refugee aid, as she had been a refugee herself. Thus is the conflict resolved. 

What I Watched: Red Barry (Universal, 1938)

Where I Watched It: TCM aired this serial, one chapter a week, on Saturday mornings for the last three months. I mostly watched it week to week but recorded the chapters to my DVR so I could review them. Unfortunately, I can’t take direct screenshots from my television like I can from my computer, hence the lower quality. Red Barry is also available on DVD.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Between Two Fires” (Chapter Nine)

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Ten (“The False Trail”) ends with a car chase, the villain having lain in wait in a taxi and taken Red prisoner, and Mississippi following in a police car. When the shooting starts, Red (in the back seat) takes the opportunity to fight against his captor: the two struggle until the door opens, spilling Red out onto the roadway, where he appears to be run over by Mississipi’s close-following car (the key word being “appears,” of course).

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Sample Dialogue: “You can always find people you’re not looking for.” –a policeman on the lookout for Quong Lee, watching Mannix go by (Chapter Eight, “The Devil’s Disguise)

What Others Have Said: “I have long admired and raved about Red Barry as the one successful detective comic strip and the only one worthy of consideration, from my scholarly viewpoint. Vigorously in the Hammett tradition, with first-rate characters and clean-cut plots.” –letter from author Anthony Boucher to Forrest J. Ackerman, quoted in Red Barry: Undercover Man, Volume 1, IDW Publishing

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What’s Next: In two weeks I’ll return with a look at Adventures of Captain Marvel!

 

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc.

Criminologist Stephen Chandler is a haunted man: after the deaths of his colleagues Allison and Thornton, he is now in the sights of the mysterious killer known only as “the Ghost.” Even the nearness of his adult daughter, June, and the watchful police officers that surround his estate cannot reassure him. Even Dick Tracy himself, on his way from his headquarters in Washington, D.C., cannot guarantee Chandler’s safety, for who could possibly be on guard against an invisible man?

Yes, at his secret headquarters, with the assistance of mad inventor Lucifer, the Ghost plots to strike. The mask the Ghost wears hides his identity should he be spotted, but it is with the “contact disc” he wears around his neck that he truly lives up to his namesake. With the twist of a few dials on Lucifer’s console, the Ghost fades from view, with only an eerie whistling sound to indicate his presence. And it is in this form that the Ghost sneaks past Chandler’s guard and into his study, shooting him dead. By the time Tracy arrives, it’s too late.

It should be clear from this opening chapter (a chapter that also includes a plot to destroy New York City by dropping depth charges on a hidden faultline) that Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc., the fourth and final Republic Dick Tracy serial, has left Chester Gould’s comic strip behind and is content to dwell full-time in serial land. It is most similar to the first Tracy serial from 1937, but even that serial, with its flying wing and personality-altering surgery, didn’t commit to anything as fantastic as invisibility, and it occasionally slowed down for mundane police work, which Crime, Inc. has little time for.

It is the humble finger print, however, that provides a hint to the nature of the Ghost and his vendetta: the only prints left behind after Chandler’s murder belong to “Rackets” Regan, a criminal executed at Sing Sing a few years before. Chandler and the first two victims had been a member of the secret Council of Eight, a group of influential citizens united to stop the scourge of organized crime. It was the Council of Eight who, along with Tracy, brought down Regan, and since the Ghost is Regan’s surviving brother (as he reveals to Lucifer in one of those “as you know” monologues that once lubricated all kinds of genre narratives), the motive for his killing spree is clear: revenge first, and resuming Regan’s criminal regime, nicknamed “Crime, Inc.”, later.

Of course, Tracy and his colleagues don’t know all that at first. In fact, they don’t even realize they’re dealing with an invisible man until nearly the last chapter (for a while, everyone who realizes the Ghost’s secret winds up dead before they can tell anyone else). But the seeming return of “Rackets” Regan leads to a reconvening of the surviving members of the Council; Tracy’s regular meetings with the group and the Ghost’s gradual reduction of their numbers, And Then There Were None-style, forms the spine of the plot. And not surprisingly (if you’ve seen more than a few of these serials), it is soon apparent that the Ghost is secretly a member of the Council himself! Once Tracy realizes that, he goes on the offensive, feeding the Council information with which he hopes to trap the Ghost and discover his identity.

Since Tracy, having been promoted at the end of Dick Tracy’s G-Men, is now based in Washington, he has an all-new supporting cast. Billy Carr (Michael Owen) fills the role of Tracy’s partner/sidekick, replacing Steve Lockwood. June Chandler (Jan Wiley), daughter of the man murdered in Chapter One, sticks around to assist Tracy, help run Council meetings, and later turns out to have her own scientific skills as a “sound expert,” helping Tracy analyze the whistling sound that accompanies the Ghost’s crimes (before they understand that he is invisible). June is more involved and gets more screen time than Gwen Andrews did in the earlier serials, but it would still be a stretch to refer to her as a “love interest” as Max Allan Collins does in his commentary. In my opinion she fits the category of “strictly Platonic, but the only major female character in the film,” but without his comic strip paramour Tess Trueheart around, Tracy is married to the law alone. (Of course Ralph Byrd is still in the title role, making him the only cast member to appear in all four serials.)

On the villains’ side, the Ghost gets his own credit, keeping his identity secret from the audience until the end. His main associate Lucifer is played by John Davidson, the cadaverous character actor with the sepulchral voice, whom we have encountered several times before in this series, and who almost always appears as a heavy. Other henchmen include Anthony Warde (who played the main bad guy in Buck Rogers) and Stanley Price, who makes an uncredited appearance in only one chapter, but whose intensity (imagine a teleporter accident fusing Peter Lorre and James Cagney) is always welcome.

Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. is a mixed bag: the emphasis on unrelenting action makes for some ambitious and boisterous fight scenes, with actors and stuntmen really throwing themselves into it. A knockdown-drag-out between Tracy and a henchman impersonating a butler in Chapter Two is typical, and one gets the sense that each chapter’s fight is meant to top the last, with more men fighting and each location more dangerous. On the other hand, there are quite a few shoot-outs with men blasting at each other from behind walls, and lots of car chases, which I just don’t find that exciting, no matter how much the black sedans squeal their tires or fishtail around tight corners. Several perils are lifted from previous Tracy serials; in some chapters that means there are actually two big action set pieces, which would have been more impressive if I hadn’t seen them before.

However, the Ghost’s invisibility is a gimmick that lends itself to atmospheric effects, bringing back elements of suspense and horror not seen since the 1937 serial. Simple devices like doors and windows that open by themselves, characters disturbed by a bump or stray gust of wind from an unknown source, or the disembodied voice of the Ghost himself (“I’m in the room even though you can’t see me. . . . Now you know why I’m called the Ghost. . . .”) are quite creepy, and (lest we forget) are always accompanied by the spooky electronic whistling of the invisibility mechanism. When the Ghost strikes, his weapon, be it a gun or knife, floats in mid-air; the Ghost’s clothes or other accessories aren’t visible, but the terrifying sight of a gun, seemingly pointing by itself, is enough of a spectacle that the filmmakers weren’t going to let logic stop them from using it.

Finally, the Ghost’s invisibility inspires an equally audacious countermeasure, matching pseudoscience for pseudoscience. In the final trap Tracy lays for the Ghost, he uses a special “infra-red X-ray” light that not only renders invisible things visible, but inverts the spectrum, making everything look like a photo negative. It’s a satisfying and memorably strange ending to one of the G-man’s weirdest adventures.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (Republic, 1941)

Where I Watched It: Dick Tracy Complete Serial Collection, VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Doom Patrol” (Chapter Three). Nothing to do with the wild DC comic of the same name, of course, but an exciting, evocative title for a chapter that ends up recycling footage from earlier Dick Tracy serials. (At least there is no economy chapter, so nothing is repeated from earlier chapters.)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Thirteen (“The Challenge”), Dick Tracy has spotted the Ghost, momentarily visible but still masked, in the halls of the Ambassador Hotel. After a chase, both end up on the roof, where a fight ensues. While grappling, the Ghost pushes Tracy out over the ledge; Tracy grabs at the Ambassador’s sign, pulling the A off accidentally so we get a good sense of how far down it is to the sidewalk below. Eventually, Tracy is clinging to the sign, which pulls away from the wall under his weight. The sign plummets to the ground, surely taking Tracy with it. . . .

Sample Dialogue: “That explains a lot of things.” –Dick Tracy, after discovering that the Ghost can make himself invisible in Chapter Fourteen (“Invisible Terror”)

The Dick Tracy serials ranked, best to worst:
1. Dick Tracy Returns (1938)
2. Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939)
3. Dick Tracy (1937)
4. Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941)

Points of connection: Crime, Inc. was the last Dick Tracy serial and the last Tracy outing from Republic. Between 1945 and 1947, RKO would produce four Dick Tracy feature films, leaning into the darker elements of the character’s setting and spotlighting grotesque villains like Splitface and Gruesome. Morgan Conway played the title role in the first two films, but then Ralph Byrd came back to portray the character with which he was most identified. After several live-action and animated television series, the next big screen outing was the 1990 feature film starring and directed by Warren Beatty, who realized a long-held dream by putting his stamp on the character. As of this writing, Beatty still holds the movie rights to the comic strip and insists he will one day make another Tracy film.

What Others Have Said: “The times are changing–note the swing music coming out of jukeboxes–and the next time Byrd plays Tracy, the innocent serial world of Republic will be traded in for the film noir universe of RKO, but in 1941, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. is sheer, serialized fun.” –Max Allan Collins, in his introduction to the VCI DVD

What’s Next: That wraps up “Fates Worse Than Death” for the summer, but I have a few serials on DVD I didn’t get to this year, so I may or may not wait until next summer to cover them. Keep watching this space, and thanks for reading!

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy (1937)

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Late at night, a band of disparate, seemingly unrelated men board a train and gather together in a private compartment, summoned by the one man they all fear–all but one! Korvitch swears that he bows to no man, and doubts that their master is even onboard the train. But then they hear it: shuffling, uneven footsteps, the steps of the criminal mastermind known only as the Lame One, whose mark is the Spider. The Lame One appears at the compartment’s door in shadows; Korvitch fires his gun, but the Lame One only laughs. Later, Korvitch wanders the empty streets, a haunted man, as behind him those uneven, shuffling footsteps pursue him relentlessly. When Korvitch’s body is found the next morning, a look of terror is frozen on his face, and branded on his skin is the mark of the Spider. Only one man can unravel this mystery and stand in the way of the Spider ring’s other crimes, and that man is Dick Tracy!

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We quickly join Tracy and his team at the Federal Office Building with Tracy answering phone calls and giving terse answers. “I think you’d better take that up with Anderson’s office. Yes, he has my report on it. . . . Well, I know all about that.” Et cetera. “You’re about the busiest man I ever saw,” Tracy’s visiting brother Gordon observes. The “Spider mark” cases are occupying the bureau’s attention, and Tracy remarks on the curious fact that each victim found with the mark has turned out to be a well-known criminal. On this day, Tracy’s birthday, Gordon and Tracy’s assistant Gwen try to drag Tracy to the estate of Ellery Brewster, who has set up a carnival, complete with circus performers, to entertain the children from the orphanage. Brewster was one of the men summoned to report to the Lame One on the train before, and when he too is murdered and left with the Spider’s mark, a day of pleasure turns into business for Dick Tracy. The murder is solved, but it was committed by an expendable underling, of course: the Spider ring remains as mysterious as ever.

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Gordon recalls receiving a sealed envelope from Brewster before his murder, which may have information about the Spider ring, but when he drives to his office to retrieve it, he is run off the road by more of the Spider’s men. Injured and taken to Moloch, the Lame One’s hunchbacked scientist, Gordon is operated on, with dramatic results: by “a simple altering of certain glands,” Moloch changes Gordon’s personality so that he does not know right from wrong and enlists him as a criminal associate. (In fact, it changes him so much that Gordon before and after the operation is played by two different actors!)

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All of this, and more, takes place in just the first (extra-long) chapter of the 1937 Republic serial Dick Tracy. With a drastically changed appearance and a dead-eyed stare, Gordon effectively becomes the “spearhead villain” of the serial, conceiving and executing plots in each chapter on behalf of the Lame One (whose identity of course remains secret until the end). The other men seen in the train compartment at the beginning each take a turn, and the range of crimes is broad, whether it’s destroying a bridge, hijacking a gold shipment, or stealing an experimental aircraft for a foreign power. This “case of the week” format with a long-term arc that connects them all is not unusual for a serial, and it makes the middle chapters feel particularly episodic: with this format, the serial could be ten chapters or a hundred, and it’s not hard to see how later television series picked up this formula and ran with it.

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Written and drawn by cartoonist Chester Gould, Dick Tracy had been a smash success since its first appearance in newspapers in 1931, and began a radio series in 1934. It was only a matter of time before the famous detective made an appearance on film. 1937’s Dick Tracy was the first of four Republic serials, all starring Ralph Byrd in the title role, and there would later be four RKO feature films starring Morgan Conway and Byrd again, not to mention the 1990 film starring and directed by Warren Beatty. Although later famous for its grotesque villains and gimmicky gadgets, the newspaper strip was at first notable for its realism, both in the level of violence portrayed and in Tracy’s reliance on cutting-edge police techniques. While strongly influenced by the “hard-boiled” writers of the 1920s, Dick Tracy was one of the first police “procedurals,” influencing not only comics but television and prose detective fiction to come.

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A panel from Dick Tracy’s first adventure in 1931

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In fact, Max Allan Collins (Dick Tracy‘s writer after Gould retired, and a commentator on the disc I watched) makes the point that much of the grotesquerie and spy-fi for which Dick Tracy was later known is strongly present in the serials of the ’30s, and may have influenced Gould. While the famous two-way wrist radio wouldn’t appear in the comics until 1946, the 1937 film is full of the scientific wonders that serial viewers had come to expect, such as a disintegrator that used high-frequency sound vibrations to destroy buildings; a stratospheric “flying wing” airplane and a different high-speed plane; and even a special radio-equipped belt that allowed Tracy to communicate with his team while undercover. Contemporary technology, while now appearing quaint, also plays a part: a few chapters hinge on recordings made with phonographs, for example. There is also a strong element of the grotesque: while the Lame One’s infirmity and hideous appearance is a disguise, Moloch’s hunch back is the real thing. And once he has been turned to evil, Gordon Tracy (Carleton Young) makes for a striking, creepy villain: scarred, dead-eyed, and skunk-striped.

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Of course, some changes came with the adaptation to the serial format, as was almost always the case, but readers of Dick Tracy at least found a hero in the serial that they would have been able to recognize. Rather than a plainclothes detective, Republic’s Dick Tracy was a G-man, working for the FBI’s Western Division, and instead of Chicago he operated out of San Francisco. Gone was Tracy’s perennial love interest Tess Trueheart (there is, in fact, no romantic angle at all; the only woman in the serial is Tracy’s lab assistant Gwen, a purely professional relation). Tracy’s supporting cast is made up of typical serial character types: Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton) is a reliable tough guy and pilot; Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) is the comic relief; Junior (Lee Van Atta, seen in Republic’s Undersea Kingdom the previous year), as in the comics, is an orphan allowed to tag along and help Tracy (and occasionally get himself into trouble).

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Ralph Byrd is more baby-faced than the hawk-nosed Tracy of the comics, but that’s typical of leading men in general in the 1930s, who often seem a little soft in comparison to today’s standard; most lean or craggy character actors got typed as villains in the serials. Byrd fits the role in most other respects, though: he’s energetic, projecting a can-do magnetism but with enough warmth that it’s easy to see why his friends remain so devoted to him. And the serial itself gives him plenty of opportunities for heroism and detection, with most chapters combining furious action with slower-paced scenes of discovering and analyzing clues. Dick Tracy adheres to a common formula, but it executes it with such energy and flair that it could be taken as a model for producer Nat Levine’s ambitions for Republic; along with its able cast and well-paced story, it boasts impressive effects, exciting music, and a smattering of comic relief (in addition to Burnette, stuttering hillbilly comics Oscar and Elmer show up for a couple of scenes). The result is a very enjoyable serial and it is easy to see why it generated so many sequels.

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What I Watched: Dick Tracy (Republic, 1937)

Where I Watched It: Dick Tracy Complete Serial Collection from VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Rides the Sky” (Chapter Four)

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Best Cliffhanger: Dick Tracy includes several classic cliffhangers, including plane crashes (and the crash of a burning zeppelin!) and boat crashes (the ending of Chapter Three, “The Fur Pirates,” finds Tracy trapped between two giant steamers, threatening to crush his boat as they move closer; another chapter finds Tracy pulled into the water by a rope attached to a departing submarine). However, my favorite cliffhanger comes at the end of Chapter Twelve, “The Trail of the Spider,” an otherwise unremarkable recap episode. Tracy and his team have brought together witnesses to some of the events from earlier in the serial, prompting flashbacks to those scenes. (The only remarkable development in this chapter is that Tracy finally learns of Moloch’s operation on his brother Gordon.) After the flashbacks, the Lame One himself enters their headquarters and, after removing a fuse to black out the lights, shines the “spider signal” on Tracy and shoots him! At least, he appears to; viewers in 1937 had to wait a whole week to find out if Tracy got out alive.

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Sample Dialogue:
Moloch (stroking black cat): “Brother against brother. One good, one evil. Ah, I wonder which will win?”
The Lame One: “We shall eliminate the G-Man!”

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What Others Have Said: “Chester Gould produced a contemporary knight in shining armor who was ready, willing, and able to fight the criminal with, if necessary, the criminal’s own weapons, to fight the toughs with equal or even greater toughness. Chester Gould created Dick Tracy to meet the desperate need of the times. Dick Tracy’s job was to regain the almost vanished respect for the law and to be the instrument of his enforcement. As Gould once said in an interview, ‘I decided that if the police couldn’t catch the gangsters, I’d create a fellow who would.'” –Ellery Queen, “The Importance of Being Earnest; or, The Survival of the Finest”

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What’s Next: There are three more Dick Tracy serials, but I intend to space them out rather than plow straight through the series. So my next update will be on the 1948 Superman serial, starring Kirk Alyn!

Fates Worse Than Death: Daredevils of the Red Circle

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Thirty-Nine-O-Thirteen! The number strikes terror into the hearts of an innocent citizenry as Harry Crowel, escaped from the prison to which he was sentenced for unnamed crimes, orchestrates a campaign of bombings and sabotage, revenge against those who convicted him. First among his targets are business interests of his former partner, Horace Granville. When 39013 (the name taken from Crowel’s prisoner number) strikes the Granville Amusement Center by sabotaging the diving tank of the three-man Daredevils act, leading to the death of one Daredevil’s brother, the three men are motivated to lend their talents to the search for the criminal mastermind.

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Leading the Daredevils is Gene, an acrobat and older brother of the victim; the other two members are Bert, an escape artist, and Tiny, a strongman. With their combined abilities, they make an able team of detectives, and their attention is divided between saving Granville’s holdings from destruction and protecting Granville’s granddaughter, Blanche. But what of old man Granville, so frail since his recent stroke that he must stay enclosed behind glass windows in a sealed room, communicating with police forces and the Daredevils by telephone? And who is the mysterious “Red Circle” who sends the Daredevils helpful tips by placing anonymous notes for them to find? Through twelve chapters of action, suspense, and varied locations, these mysteries and more are solved in Daredevils of the Red Circle!

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First things first: it’s revealed right away in the first chapter that Crowel, alias 39013 (Charles Middleton, Flash Gordon‘s Ming and The Miracle Rider‘s Zaroff, among many other villainous roles), is impersonating Granville. The real Granville is being held captive in the basement of his house, the better for 39013 to torment him with the destruction of everything Granville worked his whole life to build. It’s easy to imagine a modern film making the reveal of 39013’s imposture a big third-act twist, but in Daredevils of the Red Circle it’s played for mounting tension–the audience knows “Granville” is a fraud, seeking to trap the Daredevils–and gives Middleton copious opportunities to gloat, to “monologue” to his prisoner. When in disguise, 39013 is played by the same actor as Granville (Miles Mander; he even says that he will only speak in Granville’s voice while in disguise, getting around any need for Middleton to dub lines), so these sessions are the meat of the role for Middleton. When the disguised ex-con confronts his old partner, the effect is achieved with a well-done split screen.

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I was initially under the impression that Daredevils of the Red Circle was set at the circus, but that’s not quite true: the Granville Amusement Center is more like New York’s Coney Island or the amusement parks that were built along southern California’s piers, and that setting is left behind after the first chapter. The performing background of the Daredevils is important, though, and provides a connection to the superheroes who were just becoming popular in comic books (and would soon appear in their own movie serials). The skin-tight costumes most superheroes still wear derive from the leotards and bodysuits of circus performers, and in the Golden Age of comic book heroes, when the circus was a more prominent cultural influence, a number of heroes were said to have gotten their athleticism and unique skills from circus training (Batman’s sidekick Robin is the best-known example). The Daredevils even have a logo: the red circle on their costumes, later appropriated by the mysterious helper who draws it on notes to get the Daredevils’ attention.

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In addition to their circus costumes (traded in for suits and fedoras after the first chapter), the Daredevils’ skills translate well to detective work, at least the kind of physical confrontations typical for serials. Gene (Charles Quigley) is the acrobat of the group, and although he performs a few stunts and displays some wicked judo-like moves during fight scenes, that mostly translates into him being faster than the others. Bert (David Sharpe) is an escape artist, bringing with him a set of skills and equipment (lock picks, files, etc.) that have proven handy for a diverse range of heroes that includes Batman, Sam Spade, and Houdini himself. (The great escapist is mentioned by name, and it’s worth noting that Houdini had been the star of several films and stories–including one ghost-written by H. P. Lovecraft–that positioned him as a real-life pulp hero.) And every team of heroes needs some muscle: Tiny (Herman Brix, who had played the lead in The New Adventures of Tarzan, and who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett) performs feats like lifting a car by its back end before it can drive away, battering down doors, and even punching through a wall to get to 39013, in addition to the numerous fights he gets into.

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There are a few surprising twists that it would be better not to reveal, but Daredevils of the Red Circle deserves credit for giving depth to characters so obviously rooted in formula. As in many serials, Blanche (Carole Landis) is the only prominent female character, but there is more to her than is obvious at first. Also, I fully expected Gene’s kid brother Sammy (Robert Winkler) to tag along with the adult characters like Billy Norton in Undersea Kingdom, so I was genuinely shocked when he died in the first chapter (trapped in the burning Amusement Center, a scene more harrowing when it is repeated in a later flashback). In retrospect, I should have recognized his scenes of character development as the equivalent of the buck private who gets shot first, or the cop only one day from retirement. Sammy’s death gives Gene and the other Daredevils a classic motivation for joining law enforcement: revenge justice.

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There are two characters in Daredevils of the Red Circle who share names with the characters they play. The first is Tuffie, the Daredevils’ dog, who accompanies them on their adventures and does movie-animal things like sniffing out evildoers and calling attention to clues. The other is Snowflake, the African-American servant who prepares and serves meals in the Granville house, played by Fred “Snowflake” Toones, a character actor who made a specialty of servile comic relief characters. To modern eyes, Snowflake is a regrettable stereotype, a clumsy, cowardly fool who speaks in “sho’ nuff” dialect: he whines and rolls his eyes, thinking a ghost has taken his newspaper when Tiny simply slipped it away when he wasn’t looking; he gets his head stuck when a sliding wall panel closes on it; he drops trays of dishes whenever Tuffie or one of the Daredevils rushes past him.

Fred "Snowflake" Toones in a typical role

Fred “Snowflake” Toones in a typical role

On the one hand, Snowflake is playing a comic relief character in the mold of Smiley Burnette: Smiley was known for playing a likeable dope who often got in the way or loused up whatever he was doing, and, like Snowflake, he often played characters who shared his name. For a character actor, having an established persona was a boon: type-casting wasn’t necessarily a bad thing if it led to steady work. I’m sure Snowflake made a good living playing such characters (although director William Witney stated in his autobiography that Snowflake ran the shoeshine stand at Republic in addition to his film roles). On the other hand, Smiley Burnette was one of many white men in the films he made, and didn’t have to bear the burden of representation; at least in Daredevils, Snowflake is the only black character, and his role–not only a servant but also a clown–is all too typical of the roles black actors had to take (and often still have to take), when they were shown on screen at all. (At least the Republic serials and Westerns Snowflake appeared in were set contemporaneously or in the past: it’s cringe-inducing to see the same stereotypes appear in ostensibly futuristic fare like E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series.)

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Still, it’s not hard to see why Daredevils of the Red Circle has such a high reputation among serial fans: it hums along, rarely growing slack, and for the most part balances action, suspense, and humor expertly. Directors John English and William Witney (responsible for many classic Republic serials) had a knack for staging scenes of dialogue and exposition in engaging ways, so that audiences aren’t simply waiting for the next big fight or car chase. There are spectacular scenes aplenty, including some set in interesting and hazardous locations such as a gas plant full of ladders and catwalks, a flooding underground tunnel, and a burning oil field.

Many of these locations were recreated with miniatures made by the uncredited Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and integrated almost seamlessly; along with the use of rear projection and split screen, Daredevils of the Red Circle is an excellent example of the era’s practical effects and stunt work (famed stuntman Yakima Canutt appears as an uncredited G-man, indicating his likely presence as a stunt coordinator). The score, credited to William Lava but with contributions from Cy Feuer and others, is exciting and imaginative (within the formulaic constraints of the style, which owes much to the operatic scores of Rossini and Weber). It’s worth a watch.

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What I Watched: Daredevils of the Red Circle (Republic, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A VHS set from Republic Home Video, vintage 1985 (this very edition, in fact):

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Screen caps are from YouTube, however.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Red Circle Speaks” (Chapter Eleven)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Five (“The Ray of Death”), 39013’s men surreptitiously change the wiring in a “gamma ray” at the Black Electro Therapeutic Clinic (another Granville holding) so that it will kill District Attorney Graves when he arrives for his treatment. The Red Circle tips off the Daredevils, who have intercepted the new wiring diagram and take the place of the messenger delivering it to the clinic. After being discovered and imprisoned in a basement vault, Gene escapes and pushes the District Attorney’s gurney out of the ray’s path just in time to save him. But as deadly sparks shower from the ray machine, can he save himself?

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: At the end of Chapter Four (“Sabotage”), the Daredevils are tied up by members of 39013’s gang at the Tri-City Gas Plant, with the boilers rigged to explode. The Daredevils break out of their trap and rush to the boiler’s release valve–but too late! The boilers erupt into a fiery inferno!

At least, that’s how it appears at the end of Chapter Four. However, somewhere between chapters the production slipped through a wormhole and was transported to a parallel dimension. Over in Earth 2, as shown at the beginning of Chapter Five, Gene gets to the release valve in time and diverts the boilers’ pressure. Thank goodness for quantum relativity!

Sample dialogue: “Well, Thirty-Nine-O-Thirteen has added up to zero.” –Gene, Chapter Twelve (“Flight of Doom”)

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What Others Have Said: “The times dictated that serial heroes be white, so talented black performers like Snowflake, whose real name was Fred Toones, were relegated to minor roles, providing corny laughs in otherwise excellent serials like Hawk of the Wilderness and Daredevils of the Red Circle.” –Alan G. Barbour, Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial

What’s Next: Bela Lugosi stars in Shadow of Chinatown!

Instruments of Death

“The Torture Garden: It’s where the Devil calls the tune . . . to play a concerto of fear!”

–Trailer for Torture Garden, 1967

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In honor of Halloween, it’s time to look at the spookier side of musical instruments, specifically the roles some have played in mystery and horror fiction.  On the one hand, the organ has the most sinister reputation of any instrument through its association with the Phantom of the Opera and his fictional descendants: there’s just something about the full organ’s portentous sound and the gloomy atmosphere of the Gothic cathedral that goes hand in hand with cobwebs and candlelight, so expect to hear many renditions of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (or at least the opening bars) during October.  The organ, nicknamed “the king of instruments,” also fits nicely with the popular association of criminal masterminds with classical music: we like our villains to have refined taste, whether played by Vincent Price or Anthony Hopkins.  In the same way, the organist seated at his instrument, surrounded by ranks of keyboards, pedals, and organ stops ready at his command, is a neat visual shorthand for a master manipulator, sitting at the center of a web, controlling everything around him.  (In at least one case, the direct-to-video Disney sequel Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, the organ is the villain, conniving to make others to do its will even though it cannot move from its place.)

Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera

Brian De Palma's 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise

Brian De Palma’s 1974 update, Phantom of the Paradise

The violin, on the other hand, is often associated with the Devil, as in such pieces of music as Danse Macabre, L’Histoire du Soldat, and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”  In folk tales, the Devil enjoys wagers, betting his own gold fiddle against the souls of his opponents.  He may also bestow musical talent in exchange for a soul, a prominent part of the myth surrounding Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. Later, the great Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was the subject of lurid rumors that he had sold his soul, and worse: Theosophy founder Madame Helena Blavatsky included Paganini in her story “The Ensouled Violin,” and graphically embroidered on the notion that the strings of Paganini’s violin were made from human intestine, and that his uncanny ability to mimic the human voice with his playing actually came from a spirit trapped within the instrument.

A similar story is part of the mythology of the Blues: Robert Johnson was supposed to have met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight, where he traded his soul for his legendary guitar-playing ability.  The legend formed the basis of the Ralph Macchio film Crossroads and was parodied on Metalocalypse (in the episode “Bluesklok”).  Interestingly, Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, has shown that the same story was originally attributed to a Tommy Johnson and then transferred to Robert when his legend outpaced Tommy’s.  Naturally, the whole thing has roots in folklore: Wald points out, “When Harry Middleton Hyatt collected stories of musicians going to the crossroads to gain supernatural skills, as part of a vast study of Southern folk beliefs in the late 1930s, he reported as many banjo players and violinists as guitarists,” as well as an accordionist.

Why is there such a connection between fiddling and death?  In the Middle Ages, instrumental music was considered both profane and frivolous, closely associated with itinerant, always-suspect actors and minstrels and the drunken singers in taverns.  In depictions of Death (usually as a skeleton, the same as now), musical instruments were often a symbol of the sinfulness, vanity, and futility of all human activity, not just music.  (The popular image of Nero “fiddling while Rome burned” probably owes much to this symbolism, as the violin had yet to be invented in Nero’s day; likewise, contrast the supposed indolence of grasshoppers with the industry of ants.)   The image of a grinning skeleton “playing” his victims into the grave may have struck the medieval viewer as cruel irony, a just punishment, or as a warning.

The medieval dance of death.

According to one author, the connection between the violin and mortality was more than just poetic: in 2006, Rohan Kriwaczek published An Incomplete History of The Art of Funerary Violin.  According to Kriwaczek, there had once been a Guild of Funerary Violinists, whose work, repertoire, and indeed their very existence had been suppressed by the Vatican during the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and ‘40s.  After 1846, the few remaining members of the Guild went underground, and Kriwaczek, eventually entrusted with their legacy, was able to piece together this secret history and bring it to the public. Kriwaczek describes the Funerary Violinist as playing a potent intercessionary role:

In his tone the violinist must first convey the deep grief that is present in the gathering, and then transform it into a thing of beauty.  By the time he is finished, a deep and plaintive calm should have descended, and the bereaved should be ready to hear the eulogy. . . . The violinist’s is a position of great responsibility, akin in many ways to that of a priest or shaman, and should not be taken lightly.

Alas, the book was a hoax, supposedly concocted by Kriwaczek to increase his bookings as a violinist at—you guessed it—funerals.  Still, I can’t help but feel that Kriwaczek’s story, with its dueling Funerary Violinists, buried secrets, and cameos from outsized characters including composers, Popes, and virtuosi, would make a smashing TV program, a historical saga with more than a touch of gothic intrigue.

Sometimes the instrument is cursed: in the short “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by the master of the English ghost story M. R. James, it’s an ancient bronze whistle (proving that another James title, “A Warning to the Curious,” could equally apply to almost all his stories):

He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure–how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.

Just as frequently it’s a MacGuffin that activates the plot: a Stradivarius is as valuable as a van Gogh, and serves as well as any other objet d’art as the motivation in a murder mystery.  An example is the three-quarter sized Strad, the Piccolino, at the center of Gerald Elias’ mystery Devil’s Trill, the first of a series centered on violinist-sleuth Daniel Jacobus.  And despite its unusual varnish, the titular instrument of the 1998 film The Red Violin is haunted more by tragedy and human foibles than by any supernatural evil.

The weaponized instrument is an infrequent literary device, but there are a few examples: the murder in Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death is accomplished by a revolver hidden inside an upright piano, rigged to fire when the pianist plays the third chord of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, a Rube Goldberg arrangement that sounds about as practical in real life as this:

Likewise, it doesn’t seem that it would be that hard to escape the vengeance meted out by the grand piano in “Mr. Steinway,” a section of the 1967 anthology film Torture Garden, based on stories by Robert Bloch.  In the story, the piano in question belongs to a prominent virtuoso, a gift from his mother, and his devotion to it is tested when a young lady (played by Barbara Ewing) enters his life.  The black wing shape of the piano is a looming presence in the film version, always in the background or casting its shadow over the doomed couple, and the Oedipal implications of the pianist’s relationship with his mother, never seen but personified by the piano, are left as unspoken subtext.  So far, so good, but by the time the piano lurches into motion and pushes the intruding girl out the window, we’ve entered the realm of delirious high camp.  The lesson: music is a jealous mistress.

Finally, as a bonus, I present one of the most bizarre (and gratuitous) examples of this trope, from the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown: death by trombone.  Happy Halloween!